Is this the Age of Narcissism?

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Are we in a vicious cycle in which narcissism and other character impairments become more common, then more acceptable, and then ultimately enabled and rewarded? How much will attitudes of entitlement cost us?

There’s been a lot of talk about narcissism these days. And that’s probably a good thing, considering how prevalent narcissism appears to have become in modern culture. It’s not that there are more folks among us with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There’s insufficient evidence to conclude that. Rather, it’s that there’s so much ego-centrism, exhibitionism and shameless behavior — all of which are features associated with narcissism — which seem to have become increasingly embedded in our social fabric. That’s led some researchers, such as Jean M. Twenge at San Diego State University to conclude that we’re indeed living in a narcissistic age.

Character and culture are significantly interrelated. Each impacts the other in a dynamic way. The more character-impaired folks there are populating a culture, the more the behavioral norms of the culture change in a manner that reflects the dominant character impairments. And the more cultural norms change in certain ways, the more they can “enable,” foster, and even reward character disturbance. It’s a classic vicious cycle, and it’s one that’s very difficult to break.

Narcissism is largely about inflated self-appraisal. It’s not only thinking too much of yourself but basing your opinions of yourself on all the wrong things. There are many aspects of modern culture that seem to draw attention to, reward, and even glorify some of the most unseemly facets of a person’s character. So called “reality” television provides a prime example of this. (I use the term “so called” because many aspects of reality programs are both carefully scripted and edited.) The more exhibitionistic, vain, pretentious, seductive, manipulative, greedy, exploitative or outrageous a person can be on these programs, the better it usually is for ratings. And the more commonplace such behavior appears in the public’s eye, the more society in general becomes desensitized to it. Repeated narcissistic behavior helps set a new social norm. It also sets us up to require new levels of dysfunction to become outraged or titillated. (Reality TV producers know this all too well.)

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Researchers like Twenge have been suggesting for a while that narcissism has become the new norm for our times. Twege has written about this in her books Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic . Many insist not only that narcissism is more prevalent but that its associated features like unrestrained self-indulgence, exaggerated self-importance, and perhaps more importantly, a pervasive sense of entitlement, are also more prevalent. And as a society, we appear to have become fairly desensitized both to narcissism and to the behaviors that accompany it. There is no shortage of narcissism among politicians, for example. But it took a new level of narcissism in one US candidate and unprecedented displays of haughtiness and disdain on that candidate’s part to get people talking and fretting about what the result might be should a person with such an inflated sense of self be handed the reins of great power.

During many years working in the field of character disturbance, perhaps nothing has been more troubling to me than the sense of entitlement I’ve witnessed increasingly permeating our culture. I’ve seen the disastrous effects attitudes of entitlement have had on relationships, work endeavors, and other critical aspects of daily life. And I’ve had some firsthand experiences that have made deep, disturbing impressions on me. It was truly traumatizing for me, for example, to witness students at one of the for-profit colleges (entities that often evidence a character disturbance of their own) fully expect me to give them credit for classes they never attended, and to feel entitled to pass exams they miserably failed despite having full and incredibly easy access to all the material they needed to succeed legitimately. There’s no way I can explain their reluctance to lift a finger to do the modest amount of work necessary to at least pass their classes except to infer that they felt entitled to the rewards of something which they felt no obligation to earn.

Are we living in an age of narcissism? I think the evidence is all around us. But I’m not dismayed. I know things will change. They’ll change because they have to. Narcissistic styles are inherently dysfunctional and eventually self-defeating. Our attitudes of entitlement will cost us. They’ve already cost us plenty, but they will cost us even more. And when the price we’re paying for narcissistic behavior becomes great enough, we’ll experience the proper pressure to change it. Eventually, we’ll usher in a new age. But to do that, we’ll have to successfully reckon with this one. That means reckoning with the culture of self-exultation and finding a more noble, pro-social purpose for our existence. I can’t wait!

You can find more on narcissism, its features, and its effects on relationships and society at large in several other articles on this site as well as my books:

  • Character Disturbance
  • How Did We End Up Here?
  • The Judas Syndrome
  • In Sheep’s Clothing

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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